Destinations · Tips

What It's REALLY Like On an African Safari

For me, before I left my comfortable suburban home to go on an African safari, I was—to put it frankly—a bundle of nerves. Despite nervousness being part of my general disposition on a daily basis, the fact that I was quite literally about to depart the U.S. for an experience completely and utterly foreign to me somewhat exasperated the fact.

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I think most people embarking on a bucket list item such as this must feel some level of the same thing, so my purpose with this post is to help ease some of those nerves. There is nothing more telling than firsthand experience and I’d like to assure you that it will, in fact, be okay. You will not get mauled by a lion or squashed by an elephant (these were some of my frequent imaginations prior to departing on my own trip…)—I can confidently promise you that.

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View from the flight to Skukuza

In fact, my first game drive happened to be a nighttime one, making it infinitely more unsettling. I was amazed at the calmness exhibited by both my guide and safari companions. HELLO?!?! Can’t you see that there is a LION literally 3 inches from your arm? Why are you not frozen solid like I am? Aren’t you afraid that if you move…. If you BREATHE, it will notice your warm fleshy goodness and be unable to resist making you its next meal?!

The truth is, the animals in the African bush are used to you. They know that the large metal objects that barrel through the landscape are no threat to them. They have never taken their food or attacked their young. They are simply another part of the environment.

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On the safari vehicle

I was reminded of this after arriving at a leopard sighting. We pulled up and the guide switched off the engine as we laid eyes on a leopard in a tree feeding on its kill. I whispered a question to our ranger, not wanting to alert the cat of our presence, and to my surprise the ranger replied loudly, “she knows we’re here—no need to whisper—we literally just drove over six trees in an enormous, two ton, 4×4 vehicle with a diesel engine to get to her.”

In our safari vehicle, we are one big entity to them. Guests are advised not to stand or stick hands up or out of the vehicle, as that would be breaking off from the form of the vehicle and showing vulnerability, but other than that, the only thing bigger than you out there would be an elephant or a rhino.

Here is a video I took that will give you an idea of what it’s like in one of the open air safari vehicles… Off-roading!

On a hot day, the big cats have even been known to lie under the vehicles for shade or even use their noise to their advantage for hunting or stalking prey. The ease expressed by the animals in our presence is what ultimately put my nerves at ease too. There was no discomfort shown by the animals, therefore my discomfort melted away as well.

By the way—a detail to pay close attention to if you are planning a safari—“off-roading” is not possible unless you’re on a private reserve. In a public reserve such as Kruger National Park for instance, you can only stay on the carved roads, which means whenever there’s an animal sighting, you’re waiting in a line of vehicles, some not manned by professional guides but simply being driven by Joe Schmoe himself who may or may not give you a turn to get a photo. You can also go on night drives in a private reserve and see the wildlife come alive after the sun goes down as well as get a bird’s eye view at the endless starry night sky, an experience not possible on a public reserve.

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From start to finish, I’d like to describe for you a typical day on safari—put it in perspective so-to-speak:

5:30am – Wake-up call from none other but your very own ranger himself.

6am – Meet your ranger and other safari-goers for a hot tea or coffee at sunrise. I always found myself walking briskly to the meeting area in the mornings, nervously hoping not to run into a large cat of any sort, but the most out-of-the ordinary thing I encountered on the 3 minute walk to the main lodge area was a female impala, wide-eyed and statuesque, literally steps outside my front bungalow entrance.

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6:15am – Depart on your first game drive of the day. Morning-time is when the most wildlife is out and about—the animals are mostly early risers, hunting in the wee hours before the heat of the day begins.

The morning game drive lasts about three hours, which from the comfort of your desk at home may seem like a long time to be driving around the African bush, but trust me when I say it goes by extremely quickly when you’re eyes are anxiously peeled, scanning your surroundings for zebras, lions, and the like.

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9:30am – Eat one of the tastiest breakfasts you’ve ever had back at the lodge in view of elephants, giraffes, and buffalo grazing within sight.

Between breakfast and lunchtime, there is usually free time. Many people in my group took naps after breakfast due to the extremely early morning, but most lodges arrange bush walks or other activities to see smaller wildlife such as birds and more. A lot of lodges also have gorgeous pools, fitness centers, and small shops you can take advantage of.

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The pool at MalaMala Main Camp.

My favorite thing to do after breakfast was relax on the back patio of my bungalow with a cup of tea and write about my trip in an attempt to remember every waking moment of it! My first night at the safari lodge, there was a hippo (reportedly the meanest of them all) practically on the back doorstep of my bungalow, but at least during the daytime I could see if he decided to approach again…

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We learned that the scratches on his back were from fighting with other hippos for his pond territory!

1:30pm – A delicious lunch is served on the back deck of the safari lodge. I’ve found in the South African culture that the servers don’t hover over you anticipating your every need. Instead, if you need or want something, you simply wave them over or request it and they’ll bring it to you. I think they don’t want you to feel smothered and like to give you space for enjoying the company of others around you.

4pm – Embark on another game drive, this time seeing all the action. After lunch is when I remember seeing the most kills—leopards dragging their recently stalked impala up a tree to feed, hyenas waiting anxiously below for falling scraps.

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We even saw a mother leopard and her cubs lounging on top of a rock outlet reminiscent of that of the Lion King, relaxing in the evening and playfully scampering around each other. This was just one of the many unique sights in my memory of the three unforgettable days spent on safari.

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On the evening game drive, our ranger brought a cooler with champagne and fruit, and once the sun started its descent, it seemed there was always some exciting animal sighting to be had. We were given the option to enjoy a fluke of bubbly on an outcrop in view of a breathtaking sunset, or continue on in search of whatever natural wonder was occurring elsewhere in the bush that night—of course we always chose the wildlife. We could have champagne later, but never again (or at least not for a long, long time) would we be given the opportunity to see a lion pride stalking impala in the starry African night.

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The care that the rangers have for the wildlife and their natural state and comfort is astounding. It is their practice not to shine the light in the eyes of any animal that is normally sleeping at night or that doesn’t have eyes that easily adjust to the light. For instance, impala, zebra, and giraffe are not naturally night-dwelling animals, so if we ever came across one while on a drive in the pitch black, our ranger would quickly move on in search of a lion or hyena or some other nocturnal animal whose eyes aren’t hurt by the bright light. Things like this help you to learn about the animals in their natural habitat more than any TV show or magazine ever could.

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8pm – Head back to the lodge to get ready and go to dinner.

If the weather is nice, you’ll get dinner in a “boma”, which is a huge circle of reeds with a fire pit and a song and dance performance and it’s a blast! Sometimes they’ll arrange a candlelight dinner in the bush or a special birthday celebration too.

You’ll want to get a ranger to walk with you back to your bungalow or room at night, because you’ll never know what could be lurking… 😉

***A few semi-unrelated tips I think you should know:

The seasons are opposite of those in the U.S. Our winter is their summer and vice versa. I went in May and wished I would have brought a hat, gloves, and a scarf! It was actually warmer at home in Michigan than it was much of the time on safari… in AFRICA! The early morning game drives especially can be quite chilly in April and May when things are starting to cool down for them. There are blankets provided in the vehicles and very comfortingly, in the ‘boma’ at dinnertime as well.

There are no vaccines or medical requirements for travelling to South Africa, which many people I talk to are surprised by. Malaria pills are recommended if you’re going on safari, but in all honestly I didn’t see one mosquito or get one mosquito bite while on the trip. Possibly this was because the weather was cooling down for the year but also I don’t think they get the unrelenting mammoth mosquitoes like most of us imagine there. We did however get a bat friend in our bungalow for the duration of our stay, which was initially alarming but became somewhat of a joke among us and our travel companions.

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Our third roommate for the trip…

All in all, I hope this information serves to prove that Africa isn’t all that scary. Instead, it’s full of wonderful hospitality and well-equipped for even the most discerning of tourists. Going on a safari was an experience never ever to be forgotten and I hope this information will help you to go out there and experience it too without even an inkling of hesitation.

With Sincerity,

CAITLYN WITHOUT A COMPASS

PS – Here is a tour of our bungalow at MalaMala Main Camp!

4 thoughts on “What It's REALLY Like On an African Safari

    1. A few points, don’t belittle the public reserves, they serve a purpose, the average south African cant afford those prices you pay at a private reserve, and frankly it isn’t worth it, secondly, the reserve attached to Mala Mala is the Kruger, it has a bigger bio-diversity and Mala Mala relies on this for its game. You can go to a public reserve and see everything for a fraction of the cost, you can go to the central and northern park and you wont fight with other cars. The other thing is you can do night drives, morning and evening walks in these parks, and mostly the rangers that take you on these excursions(SANPARK) are more skilled and qualified than the private ones that are more land rover jockeys. Go to the public parks and you will experience true African safari, or do a bit more exploring.

      1. Thank you for the information! I completely understand your comments and you are right that part of the reason I liked MalaMala was because it shared borders with Kruger and so the wildlife roamed freely from one area to the other with no fence. You can’t go wrong because whether you go to a private or public reserve in South Africa, you’re still going to have the experience of a lifetime and I definitely recommend still going to the public reserves for those with a bit tighter budget.

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